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Houston Cougar basketball 2012-13 preview: Defining expectations

Everyone can agree that TaShawn Thomas and the Coogs need to improve this year. But how much improvement is necessary to call it a successful season?

TaShawn Thomas and the Cougars are looking forward to putting two straight losing seasons behind them.
TaShawn Thomas and the Cougars are looking forward to putting two straight losing seasons behind them.
Troy Taormina-US PRESSWIRE

When the Cougar basketball program traded in the constant, monotonous mediocrity of Tom Penders for new head coach James Dickey, it probably wasn't expecting the sudden drop-off it got: from an average of 20 wins a season, and a winning conference record five out of six years, to two sub-.500 records, and an 11-21 mark in C-USA play. But the silver lining has been the recruiting. Dickey has somehow wooed four top-100 recruits to Hofheinz Pavilion, including Danuel House, the highest Cougar recruit in a couple of decades, at least.

But the promise of recruiting is meaningless if it never turns into winning actual basketball games. So needless to say, expectations are high entering Dickey's third season, with three of the four aforementioned highly-touted recruits on campus and ready to play (Chicken Knowles will have to sit out the year), and a Big East transfer thrown in the mix for good measure. But what, exactly, should we expect of this team? And what kind of win total would be required to achieve those expectations?

Find your expectation for the team listed below, and read what has to happen to make you happy.

I'll take any sort of post-season play.

Rationale: Remember when Coach Penders took us to two NITs and two CBIs in his first five years? Remember how we all complained about that? Unbelievable. After two years of losing basketball under Coach Dickey, I'll take anything. CBI, CIT, whatever. Given that we're losing four of our top six scorers to graduation or transfer, as long as we're still playing basketball after the conference tournament ends, I'm happy. It's not great, but it's a step in the right direction, and with a young team (Joseph Young and TaShawn Thomas are underclassmen, Danuel House is a freshman, Knowles becomes eligible next year) I'll accept a moral victory to get us some momentum heading into the Big East.

The path to get there: Have a .500 or better conference record, and put a little bit of distance between yourself and .500 overall. Even Rice (18-15 overall, 8-8 C-USA) managed to snag a CBI invite last year. (And won two games once they got there, no less!) With a non-conference schedule that was designed to inflate the overall won-loss record, even an 8-8 conference mark could conceivably get the Cougars into a lower-tier tournament.

Let's at least make the NIT.

Rationale: Come on, Houston used to be a top basketball program, have a little pride. The CIT, really? With 148 (and counting) teams now "earning" a post-season berth every year, your standards have to be raised a little. The NCAA takes 68 and the NIT takes 32, so making the NIT puts you in the top 100. That has a nice ring to it. And with all of the talent on campus, it should be expected.

The path to get there: Here's where Houston's lousy schedule comes into play. Not only did Houston do a pitiful job of scheduling in non-conference (no team higher than 119 in last year's RPI, only three teams in the top 200), but the conference offices didn't do them any favors, either. The Cougars don't face any of the top five RPI teams in C-USA more than once. But RPI-killers like SMU (#216) and Tulane (#251) do get home-and-homes with the Coogs. That's fine for racking up wins, but the NIT does actually start looking at things like RPI and Strength of Schedule, and that's where the Cougars suffer.

The 28 games on Houston's regular season schedule give the Coogs an average opponent's RPI of 172. (Granted, this is based on last year's RPI, and it's this year's that counts, but with a sample size that large, the overall number is unlikely to sustain a large shift one direction or the other.) Houston only faces two teams that finished last season in the top 50 (Southern Miss and Memphis) and only two more that finished in the top 100 (Marshall and UCF). Your record in those top games (or at very least, the existence of such games on your schedule) is one of the top factors looked at by selection committees.

So assuming that the Cougars don't win Conference USA in the regular season (which would carry with it an automatic NIT berth), what will they have to accomplish in terms of total wins to make the NIT? If we look at teams with similar SOS numbers*, we see Nevada (24-5, NIT #5 seed) and Middle Tennessee State (24-6, NIT #4 seed) easily cashing in on NIT bids. A little bit further down, we see Cleveland State at 21-10 earning an at-large bid to the NIT, but we also see see Kent State at 20-10 getting left out. So we know that a 5- or 6-loss record will probably be sufficient, but once you hit double digits, your NIT hopes are no longer secure.

Given that we're talking about a theoretical season in which Houston does not make the NCAA tournament (rendering any NIT talk moot), we have to assume a loss in the Conference USA tournament. So a 21-7 overall record heading into the conference tournament would probably suffice.

*We will define "similar SOS numbers" as an average opponents RPI of between 162 and 182, four or fewer top-50 games and eight or fewer top-100 games.

The Big Dance, or bust.

Rationale: It's going to take a lot to wash the bad taste of the last two seasons out of my mouth. Coach Dickey has a lot to atone for, and none of these second-rate tournaments, not even the NIT, will erase the last two seasons. Houston was once a power basketball program and can be again, and we won't get there until NCAA tournament berths become the expectation. If we don't hear our names called on Selection Sunday, it's another season down the drain, and Dickey's seat should feel very hot. If Kentucky can win a national title with a bunch of freshmen, our less-heralded, but still star-studded crop of underclassmen can at least get us to the tournament.

The path to get there: Of course, the easiest path is to simply win the Conference USA tournament, but failing that, there's always the possibility of the at-large berth. However, the NCAA has (in most instances) sent a pretty clear message about the importance of having a strong schedule, so even with the tournament field expanded to 68 teams, the Coogs' SOS could come back to bite them even if they're sitting on a gaudy win total at season's end.

That said, a poor strength of schedule is not necessarily prohibitive. The easiest way around this is simply to win the conference tournament, but it's not the only way. Let's take a look at how the selection committee treated some teams with similar SOS numbers and high win totals last year.

Case study #1: Murray State

The Racers were the epitome of a Cinderella story last year, coming from utter obscurity to amass a 27-1 regular season record. Their opponents' RPI was only 181 (right in the neighborhood of Houston's), and ultimately, Murray State won its conference tournament, so its inclusion in the tournament was never in doubt. The committee rewarded the Racers with a #6-seed in the NCAA tournament. So we'll consider that the upper threshold of possibility for Houston this year.

Case study #2: Harvard

The Crimson's opponents' RPI was nearly dead-even with Houston's at 175. They did have a few more upper-echelon games, facing eight top-100 opponents. Harvard racked up the wins all year long, taking a 25-4 record into Selection Sunday. Like Murray State, Harvard was guaranteed a spot because they won their conference, but it's interesting to note that the Crimson received a #12 seed in the tournament. For a point of reference, only two at-large teams (BYU and Iona) received lower seedings than Harvard, which indicates that had they not had their auto-bid, the Crimson would have found themselves juuuuust on the right side of the bubble. Hey, speaking of living on the bubble...

Case study #3: Iona

The Gaels were the ultimate bubble team. Actually, many prognosticators didn't even bother listing the Gaels on the bubble due to their lousy schedule (opponents' RPI of 172, only eight top-100 games) and ho-hum overall record (25-7, including two losses to teams of RPIs over 200). But the committee stunned college basketball fans around the country with Iona's inclusion. The most likely explanation is that the Gaels were rewarded for a respectable non-conference schedule, despite their membership in the MAAC dragging down their overall numbers.

And ultimately, that's why Iona probably isn't a good case study for the Cougars. If anything, the committee would be looking to punish Houston for a non-conference slate that will rank one of the worst in the country (average non-conference opponent's RPI: 267[!!!!!!!]), not reward them. So if you remember Iona's surprise NCAA tournament berth, and think that the Cougars might be able to sneak into the Big Dance with a 7-loss resume, think again. As previously mentioned, the 5- and 6-loss resumes of Nevada and MTSU are better barometers of how the committee would treat the Cougars, and neither sniffed the NCAA tournament.

Bottom line: A 25-4 campaign like Harvard's is probably the bottom baseline for a potential at-large NCAA tournament berth. Even then, the committee might be happy to smite the Cougars to make an example of them for when everybody else is putting together their non-conference schedule. Still, we'll stay relatively optimistic, and say that a 25-3 record heading into the conference tournament gets the Coogs back in the NCAA tournament.

So there you have it: 25-3 for the NCAA tournament, 21-7 for the NIT, and above .500 in conference play for some sort of postseason berth.

Based on that, Houston faithful, what are your expectations for this Cougar team?

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.